A new virtual reality experience allows users to save the world—or die trying

VIRTUAL BROTHERS: (L-R) Nathaniel and Alex Rossol have created Canada's first VR escape experience.

(Space Station Tiberia) “One of you guys has got to keep those asteroids away from the fuel cells!” Katie says.

“I’m on it!” I say. I stand with my back to the crew, managing to bat a few small grey asteroids away as The Big One, glowing hot and red, thunders towards us. I’m terrified.

My colleagues and I are beta testing S.S. Tiberia, a VR escape room experience designed by Nathaniel Rossol (Computer ’07, MEng ’10) and his brother Alex Rossol. (Both brothers are also computing science alumni, Nathaniel with a PhD and Alex with a BSc). Their young company is called vrCAVE, and it offers immersive virtual reality experiences.

A traditional escape room is a physical space that has been artfully decked out to match a theme—maybe the lair of a Cold War spy or a serial killer, for example. You and your fellow adventurers must solve a series of puzzles or problems within a set time to free yourselves from the room.

The Rossol brothers’ escape room is completely virtual. Users enter a mostly empty room and are outfitted with goggles, handsets and headset. Players appear to each other as floating helmets and gloved hands. (It’s amazing how quickly the brain accepts that.) When the attendant flips a switch, the floor seems to drop away, revealing that you are on the fictional space station the S.S. Tiberia, tasked with saving humanity. Edmonton’s SmartyPantz escape room franchise agreed to be the testing ground of S.S. Tiberia for vrCAVE.

Nathaniel’s master’s degree under computer engineering professor Mrinal Mandal focused on multimedia. “It was extremely related to VR, because it had to do with integrating audio, visual, image formats, data formats—the whole multimedia package,” he says. From there, in his PhD he worked on sensors for motion tracking. “Being able to track human motions with embedded sensors and integrating that data is the key technology behind VR,” he explains. “It’s mostly about tracking where you are looking and about where hand controllers are placed.”

“Long term we’d like to get into training for emergency crews: police, fire, ambulance, maybe the oil field industry,” he says. “But to prove that we can build systems like these, entertainment was the obvious first option.”

And they’re on the cutting edge of the technoology. People with motion sickness sometimes turn down the chance to try VR. “I get motion sick, so I knew we had to develop a system with more frames per second,” Nathaniel says. vrCAVE systems work at 90 frames a second, which feels like natural vision.

S. S. Tiberia is not the Rossol brothers’ first VR tableau. Last year, in time for Halloween, they created Hospital of Horror, in which pairs of players walk through a virtual abandoned hospital to have the wits scared out of them. At SmartyPantz, Hospital of Horror will replace S.S. Tiberia for the month of October this year, too.

Their early work on VR attracted the notice of Tom Viinikka, a University of Alberta alumni mentor, who has partnered with them. “We wanted our system to be small and nimble,” Nathaniel says. “Our goal is to have a couple of these games operating in each major Canadian city.”

And in February 2017 vrCAVE won the TEC Edmonton VenturePrize, which included a $25,000 prize, along with business services in kind.  

Both the Rossols and Viinikka are excited about the next phase of their Edmonton-based business. “There’s a lot of technical talent here,” Nathaniel says. “The U of A is an excellent program. Bioware made it here; I think we can, too.”